Building bridges: Tichawangana raises the arts using online tools
by Caitlin Reardon
For many years, Fungai Tichawangana has been crafting a recipe to help artists bring the power of online tools into their work. By fusing his passion for web development and writing with a dash of entrepreneurship, Tichawangana helps artists and other creatives position themselves for success online through his own businesses and currently as a member of the steering committee of the ArtsHub of Western Massachusetts.
He has helped a number of local artists with their online marketing, including the prolific poet and translator of Danish literature Michael Favala Goldman, writer Steve Bernstein, founder of the Black Writers Read series Nicole M. Young, The Emerging Writer Fellowship, and Straw Dog Writers Guild's Write Angles Conference.
The Zimbabwe-raised writer and web developer has always held a constant interest in arts while cultivating a keen eye for business and entrepreneurship. But since his college days at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), Tichawangana’s own creative career work with web design, arts and culture coverage, and writing has since evolved into advocating for and encouraging other local artists to build their own entrepreneurial side and grow their businesses with his digital marketing business, Artist Dynamix.
Tichawangana’s career interest in web design grew with the internet itself. In the late 1990s, he had established a clear infatuation with the world-wide-web. As a photographer and writer for one of the online publications on the UZ campus, Tichawangana began intersecting visual art with the online world. Just a couple of years later, he started Venekera Works, a website design company for businesses and organizations.
Soon the business was building websites of its own, primarily in the arts and culture space. First was an entertainment news site called Itsbho in 2004. Tichawangan initiated or was involved with many other arts & culture websites including, a site for Zimbabwean writers, a site for Zimbabwe’s biggest arts festival at the time, The Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA), and then one for Oliver Mtukudzi, the top musician in the country.
Tichawangana remembers growing up and consuming Western movies, television shows, and other forms of media because of the programming of the then only TV station in the country and the music played on the radio.
“As a young person growing up in Zimbabwe, I knew more about LL Cool J and Madonna than I did about artists next door in Zambia, next door in Botswana, in Namibia, etcetera,” he said.
“If you're saying, ‘this is how I'm going to make a living,’ then you have to show up every day for it... and you have to learn the other non-artistic skills that will get you there.”
Years later, when he started developing arts and culture websites and landed right in the center of Zimbabwean music, fashion, literature, and other art forms, he realized just how much local and regional artistic expression many young people in his generation had missed out on.
It started with an entertainment news website called Itsbho in 2004 and then a website for Zimbabwean writers. In 2008, he launched Zimbo Jam, an arts and culture news site, which went on to win four national arts merit awards.
When Zimbo Jam was born, Zimbabwe was going through an economic crisis. The website sought to highlight artists who were lesser known and underrepresented and publish their stories in the same space as those of more well-known artists. The hope was that the traffic drawn by the popular artists would help shine a light on other artists.
This required Tichawangana and his very small staff to capture multiple events each weekend for Zimbo Jam.
“There were times when we had 7-8 events to cover in a weekend and an event on every night of the week,” he recalls, “and then we’d need to find time to write up the events, do interviews, edit photos - and build the client websites that funded the whole business.”
While working with Zimbo Jam, Tichawangana started to wrestle with the reality that many artists, although very talented, were not given the education or tools needed to help them succeed as artists. As a result, they constantly struggled financially.
Initially, he thought that giving artists more visibility was the answer, but then as he saw that even popular artists struggled, he realized the problem was a bigger one.
“The real issue is that as creatives, we don't get any sort of business training,” he said.
As an artist himself, Tichawangana understands the nature of how artists operate. Motioning to his heart, Tichawangana said that artists work from there as a necessity of the work they do.
“Business, however, requires working a lot more from the mind,” he motioned to his head.
“While being skilled in your craft is one key part to an artist’s career, the question becomes, how can artists align themselves with ‘business thinking'?,” he said.
“Different things rise up inside you for different reasons, and your job is to figure out what each one is there for.”
“If you're saying, ‘this is how I'm going to make a living,’ then you have to show up every day for it,” he said, “and you have to learn the other non-artistic skills that will get you there.”
In recognition of the work he did documenting Zimbabwean arts and culture, Tichawangana received a Harvard University Nieman Journalism Fellowship in 2015. The fellowship is a year-long program where mid-career journalists get an opportunity to work on new skill sets and rethink the trajectory of their work.
As a nod to his extensive use of the Internet, video, and social media as far back 2008, a time when many of these tools were only just making their way into many newsrooms, Tichawangana also received a concurrent Berkmain-Klein fellowship for Journalism Innovation.
Pushing arts & culture forward. Some of the websites Tichawangana has developed.
After moving to Cambridge MA for the fellowship and then to Kenya for two years, Tichawangana landed in Western Massachusetts, where he and his family currently reside.
Tichawangana’s company, Artist Dynamix, officially launched at the beginning of 2022. The arts-centered entrepreneurial company mixes many of Tichawangana’s interests and experiences throughout his career – the two expansive worlds of arts & culture on the one end, and the web & media on the other.
“The foundation of my work has always been this intersection between the actual work that artists are doing and how they are making themselves visible online,” Tichawangana said.
Artist Dynamix offers several services to creatives and organizations that are looking to make a mark online. These include website development, mailing lists, and search engine optimization. The business dedicates 20% of its time to working on pro bono arts and culture projects. Beneficiaries of this initiative have included the Emerging Writers Fellowship, The Ipikai Poetry Journal and Literary Massachusetts.
The business dedicates 20% of its time to working on pro bono arts and culture projects. Beneficiaries of this initiative have included the Emerging Writers Fellowship, The Ipikai Poetry Journal, and Literary Massachusetts.
Tichawangana is also offering his entrepreneurial knowledge to the ArtsHub space as part of the steering committee. He is also spearheading the development of the ArtsHub’s first individual donor campaign to be launched soon.
“It's a real opportunity to tap into all the people who love the arts and culture, who support it, and want to see it continue to grow, but who more importantly, want to see Western Massachusetts artists and the ArtsHub thrive,” he said.
The road to community was not easy for Tichawangana when he first arrived in Western Massachusetts. He cited that he is often the only person from outside of the country or the only Black person in a room. “I'm often very aware of how different I am,” he said. But he saw this as an opportunity rather than a setback, by “building bridges” with those who are different from him.
“I found that by simply going out and meeting more people it became easier to develop a sense of community,” he said.
Asked about whether or not he was conflicted about focusing on his artistic side or the business and media side of things, he responded, “I realized at some point that different things rise up inside you for different reasons, and your job is to figure out what each one is there for.”
Through his many interpersonal efforts, such as meeting fellow writers through Valley Society, Straw Dog Writers Guild, and the Forbes Library Writing Room, along with joining various business circles and even being nominated to the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, Tichawangana’s professional relationships have further strengthened his interest in arts entrepreneurship.
“I am am aware now, more and more, that artists everywhere face the same challenges that I came across as a journalist for Zimbo Jam many years ago,” he surmises. "Access to the training and tools that help them become more successful as professionals is not as widespread as it needs to be."
PHOTO CREDITS: Photo of Fungai speaking at UMass event, courtesy of Nate Yee. Other photos courtesy of Fungai Tichawangana.